Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 6 July 2017
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
The committee is now in public session. We are joined today by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, as a permanent witness to the committee. He is accompanied by Mr. John Riordan, deputy director of audit.
Apologies have been received from Deputies Peter Burke and Alan Farrell. We note their apologies.
The first item on the agenda are the minutes of the meetings of 27 and 29 June. Are they agreed? Agreed.
The next item are matters arising from the minutes. There is nothing specific that is not on the agenda in front of us.
The next item is correspondence received of which there are a number of items. Category A refers to briefing documents that we have received from the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Nos. 653(i) and (ii) pertain to a cover letter from Mr. Derek Moran, Secretary General of the Department of Finance. We note and will publish that.
No. 661A is a cover letter from Mr. Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It is an update on Votes 11, 12, 18 and 39, Chapter 3 and the special report by the Comptroller and Auditor General on financial reporting in the public sector.
We note the opening statement supplied by the Department of Finance. We will receive the opening statement from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform during the course of this morning's meeting. We have not received it yet but we are not scheduled to meet the Department until this afternoon.
The next item is correspondence that was carried over from last week's meeting. Correspondence dated 16 June came from Mr. Maurice Buckley, Chairman, OPW, deals with a request by the Department of Education and Skills to provide office accommodation for Caranua with instructions from the Department that Caranua would meet the appropriate rental costs.Members have the correspondence in front of them so people can see precisely what has been said. Whether we like it, disagree with it or are happy with it is another issue. Does anyone want to make a specific comment on the matter?
I am happy that we finally got clarification on 16 June. I find it extraordinary that when Caranua and the Department were here before us, and please correct me if I am wrong but I think the Secretary General of the Department attended on that occasion, nobody seemed to know the rental position and least of all Caranua. Originally Caranua said it did not pay rent and the matter has since been clarified. I mention this matter because at that point, Caranua said it was not paying rent and subsequently corrected itself. The Department official who attended the meeting did not know anything about rent. We now have a letter dated 16 June informing us that from the very beginning, the Department of Education and Skills directed that Caranua had to pay.
No. From the very beginning when Caranua went into the building, the Department of Education and Skills let it be known that Caranua had to pay. The fact that Caranua did not pay and allowances were made for it is to be welcomed. I have a difficulty with the fact that the official from the Department of Education and Skills sat in on the meeting on that day yet it took until 16 June and our persistence to find out the position. I still have no idea why further provision was not made for Caranua in the circumstances but that is for a different forum. I am most unhappy with the way the information has been relayed to us. I am also unhappy that rent amounting to approximately €250,000 will be taken every year, if one takes VAT into account, in a fund that was specifically set up under statutory obligations to support victims who had attended institutions. I shall leave the matter at that for today. I am most unhappy with the Department of Education and Skills and that Caranua must now pay almost €250,000 when there should be no need for it to do so. Caranua should be facilitated in appropriate buildings that are owned by the State.
Prior to Caranua being set up, a different forum existed under the direct guidance or direct-----
The Deputy's point has been well made. Essentially, it boils down to the position being well known by all of the public bodies involved - the OPW, the Department of Education and Skills and Caranua. There was a lack of candour and being upfront. No-one told us straight up on the first day we asked the question. We should not have had to go to such an extent to extract the information that we have received. We might not like the information but it was well known to everybody who sat opposite us at all stages. We had to extract the information. It felt like we were pulling teeth.
Mr. McCarthy might help us. We have a special report on financial reporting in the public sector, although it might not be relevant. It deals with accounts and the presentation of information. We could link it into our conclusions when we come that issue separately. However, the point is well made. We should not have to waste taxpayers' time, public service time and our time to extract what is the system.
It may well be something for year-end. I do not want to be imposing more work on the secretariat but this has come up over and over again with different organisations. We need to get almost a Committee of Public Accounts equivalent of StubbsGazetteat the end of the year to note the people. It is beyond funny at this stage. It is administratively very heavy on this side and I expect that is also the case on the other side. Instead of just coming in and saying-----
We regularly find that there is information in the heads of or available to witnesses which they do not impart in public session. As Chairman in the last year, I have come to that conclusion. I will not list the Departments I am sure about.
Every time somebody comes in with whom we find this pattern, can we set the relevant matters aside and put them together with the others to show that there is an issue and that there will be consequences for people if it continues?
It is a fundamental function of Accounting Officers who come before us to co-operate and report to the Committee of Public Accounts. They do not come here to dodge bullets; they come here to answer the questions.
They will say we did not ask the right questions but we expect them to be a bit more open. We expect them to assist us. The point is well made and we will come back to it. That is the OPW situation.
The next item is No. 625B, correspondence received on 30 June 2017 from An Garda Síochána. The document provides an analysis of expenditure relating to the Garda College division from 2009 to 2016 as requested by the committee. We note and publish that and will discuss it as part of our compilation and report on the Templemore issue.
The next two items, Nos. 654B(i) and 654B(ii), comprise correspondence, dated 29 June, from Dr. Brendan Murphy, President of Cork Institute of Technology, on the 2015 financial statements. This was requested at our meeting. I have asked the people finalising the report on third-level institutions to review the document. We hope to have the final sign-off on that education report in private session later today. I have asked for anything that needs to be in our draft report to be brought forward. In fairness, it is a good and comprehensive reply on the information we sought. We have to acknowledge that a lot of information has been provided there.
The next item is correspondence dated 30 June from the Dublin Institute of Technology enclosing a breakdown of the library budget and legal fees for 2014 to 2016. That or extracts from it can be considered for inclusion our report which we hope to finalise this afternoon and launch early next week. We will come to our work programme shortly. The correspondence is noted and will be published.
The next item is correspondence dated 3 July 2017 from Mr. John Barrett, executive director of human resources and people development in An Garda Síochána. We will come to that in a minute with the other Garda correspondence to take the two together.
The next item is No. 659B, correspondence received on 30 June 2017 from University College Cork enclosing information requested at the meeting of 22 June on the acquisition of IMI and on the Irish Maritime and Energy Research Cluster, IMERC, of companies. I have asked for that information to be taken into consideration in the report we hope to finalise this afternoon. In fairness, UCC provides comprehensive answers to the questions we asked. We have good information there. It is interesting that both CIT and UCC deal with a common interest in the IMERC and have provided a briefing note on the group of companies. We received the same document from both on foot of our questions last week.
Yes. It is an extensive document. They explain all the different subsidiaries. When the representatives from the college appeared before us, we asked the president about the acronym SNO and whether it is the name of a company. He could not provide full information on the day. It is called SEFtec NMCI Offshore Limited. That is where he got SNO Limited. He has given us exact details of the company and the other subsidiaries. The question was asked whether they paid Cork Institute of Technology for the use of its facilities. It is confirmed that the company paid €242,680 excluding VAT in respect of its costs before there was any dividend. They also paid dividends of €340,000 to CIT. The functioning, costs and contributions of those organisations is well set out in the letter. It is good to get that because the question was asked specifically the last day.
It was about UCC and IMERC. I do not know whether correspondence has come in on the external review and whether we could have a copy of it. There were three things I asked for specifically. Will I go through them?
For the record, I set out the three things. I asked for clarification on the internal audit and the procedure on it going to the board of governors. I asked about the external review of IMERC, its status and a copy of it. I asked for clarification as to whether a senior lecturer or lecturers had been appointed in non-compliance with procedures. That information was not available. They were to clarify those three things for me.
It is the final appendix. There are 17 pages in that. In fact, both UCC and CIT provided the same report. I see a reference to the internal audit committee in the reply from UCC also. During the course of the next couple of hours, we might have an opportunity to review that in private session at least. They appear to have provided good information. That is UCC, CIT and some information from DIT on the library issue. We note and publish all of those and will deal with them in private session before we complete our report later on today.
The next item is No. 649C, correspondence from Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills, in reply to a request from the committee for a response to correspondence sent to the committee by an individual on the use of public funds to obtain legal advice. I propose to forward the reply from the Department to the correspondent. We have dealt with it extensively and that is a further reply from the Department. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Next item is No. 650, correspondence of 23 June from an organisation on a complaint being investigated by An Garda Síochána on the winding up of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland in 2014. The committee has been copied with the correspondence but it is addressed to An Garda Síochána. As such, we note it but someone else is acting on it.
No. 651C is correspondence received from a number of individuals with regard to Clonkeen College in Blackrock, County Dublin. This was discussed last week and the secretariat has written to the Department of Education and Skills for a response. I propose that we write to the correspondents informing them that we are awaiting a response and will contact them when have it. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 656C is correspondence dated 30 June 2017 from the chief executive officer of Horse Racing Ireland in response to a query sent by the committee about Dundalk racetrack and how much it actually costs, as well as various issues around loans and debenture which had been granted over the assets of the company. This issue goes back several years but we will note this and send a copy of that response to the individual who wrote to us.
No. 657C is correspondence dated2 July 2017 from an individual and concerns an investigation by the Revenue Commissioners into a complaint made by the individual as an employee. I propose we write to Revenue to establish the process for hiring companies to carry out investigations of this nature. The individual is, I believe, now a former employee. We will wait for a reply and ask Departments and public bodies questions on their processes and procedures if there is a loss to the taxpayer.
Before I complete the correspondence there are two more items I want to bring to the committee's attention. The first of these is item No. 658B, dated 3 July 2017, from Mr. John Barrett, executive director of human resources and people development at An Garda Síochána. The document refers to matters concerning evidence heard by this committee about Templemore Garda College that Mr. Barrett believes is incorrect. Other matters covered include the handling of a complaint about Mr. Barrett, a tracing methodology in respect of EU funds and a timeline of events from 2015 to present. We will note that and consider it as part of drafting our report. We had a meeting in private session yesterday and are scheduled to have another meeting next Tuesday. We can discuss that then. Would any member like to make any particular comment on this at this stage?
I just want to be clear on this. We are hoping to finalise a report. Is it the case then that any information or documentation that we get, be it from Mr. Barrett or from anyone else, cannot be tested from this point on?
We will come back to this issue again because the report is for module one. I just want to be clear about the status of any documentation that we get at this point. Claims may be made that need to be either substantiated or examined. Is it the case that it is not possible for us to do so at this point?
Yes. We will have no more public meetings so we have to conclude. If there are issues on which we cannot conclude then we will just have to state that and consider them for further examination in part two of our report, which will be carried out after the summer recess.
Finally, we come to No. 663(i). This is from Mr. John Nugent, chief administrative officer, and concerns various questions we asked in public session. It is a short letter, less than a page, and I think we need to put it on the public record because it follows up on matters on the public record and directly replies to us. I am also informed that further information from Mr. Nugent arrived in this morning. This is currently being circulated. All of this will have to be taken into account before we finalise our report on An Garda Síochána. The information here is not extensive but there is some information that is relevant to what we have been discussing.
The first issue in this letter concerns Mr. Culhane and Mr. Howard and responds to Mr. Culhane's earlier correspondence about the draft internal audit interim report. The letter states that a recent meeting of the Committee for Public Accounts confirmed the Garda Commissioner initially sought legal advice over this serious matter and that Mr. Culhane was consequently invited to respond to Mr. Howard's correspondence. The letter then goes on to say that Mr. Culhane responded and confirmed that he has withdrawn the two letters to Mr. Kelly, the internal auditor, at the Committee of Public Accounts, including the comments he made about Mr. Kelly's professionalism, personal motives and integrity.
We need to verify the transcript. I know that I discussed this issue with Mr. Culhane and that he certainly did withdraw certain comments. I do not specifically recall him withdrawing those two letters before this committee, which is what this letter said he did. When the Commissioner was in here the second time I specifically asked her about the status of that letter, whether it still stood and whether it would still be standing by the time we came to producing our report. If that was the case, we would have to conclude that it reflected the official position of An Garda Síochána. Both she and Mr. Nugent said that the matter was going through a process. We now have a letter saying that it was withdrawn in public session several weeks earlier. This letter contradicts what we were told at the subsequent public meeting. We need to get this verified. It is possible that we missed the full withdrawal of the letter in public session. If we did then we would be happy to put that formally on the record but first we need that verified.
We sought a lot of correspondence from An Garda Síochána and we have now received some from Mr.Nugent. This correspondence is, unfortunately, still coming in to us now, at the 11th hour. They know that we are up against the clock and that we have to get a report out. It strikes me that An Garda Síochána is waiting until the very last minute to give us the information we need. Does the Chairman know if there is still a deficit of information?
My quick observation of this correspondence that has come in about Mr. Culhane is that it contains a lot of withdrawals and retractions. This is to be welcomed on one level but cannot take away from any perceived failures in process and procedures. Retractions and withdrawals can be noted but we are dealing with what happened in real time. This needs to stated clearly. We can welcome and acknowledge withdrawals and retractions but they should not influence our report.
More information arrived this morning. We are down to a shortlist but we will specifically deal with the information requested. If this committee did not receive the full level of co-operation expected then that in itself will be an issue in our final report. I am putting that on the record here now. To corroborate what Deputy Cullinane just said, this letter from Mr. Culhane would never have been withdrawn, if it is indeed withdrawn, but for the fact that it was raised here at the Committee of Public Accounts.
What do we do with unsolicited correspondence? It is almost like An Garda Síochána is trying to confuse us here. How do we deal with this when it comes to producing the report itself? Do we include it or do we not?
There is some very good information in Mr. Barrett's correspondence but much of it is his personal opinion, which we have not fully tested. There are a lot of remarks about other people and we have not tested these either. I do not expect that we will be able to include this as part of an appendix to a published report of the Committee of Public Accounts. We will have to discuss this. We would have to go through the letter line by line to see if we could put our names to including it in our report. There is certainly information here that we can work into the report but full publication is a different issue.
I also want to address Mr. Barrett's unsolicited correspondence. For one thing, I must say that I found it very helpful. It contains opinion, certainly, but there is no difficulty in discounting that. It also points to certain facts that I found to be very helpful. I read this in advance of yesterday's meeting in private session and gave my view of the issues arising from it.
As far as I am concerned, there is wilful delay on the part of An Garda Síochána. We are being drip fed information in response to very simple questions. The letter from Mr. Nugent to do with Mr. Culhane is a kind of catch-all to cover all the bases, having been dragged kicking and screaming to give some kind of a response. I recall him withdrawing comments under pressure, but, in the first instance, how does one withdraw a letter? Had Mr. Culhane written to Mr. Kelly and copied to us an apology, a seeking to withdraw, a regret and all the rest of it, that might be one thing, but this is in effect a third party, albeit the line manager, writing on behalf of someone-----
-----and claiming something that, to my mind, happened in part, and certainly in terms of the withdrawal of comments, and not other than that. I have read this morning's correspondence as well. While there are these full pages with brief comments on item this and item that, it is a box ticking exercise. One issue came up in the stuff that I read this morning about the 50 accounts. It said all are closed except those that are private or club accounts. That is an issue for me. What private and club accounts? What money is in those?
The issue is that by next Tuesday, when we hopefully get to a very advanced stage in regard to our report on Templemore, all that will be taken into account. We will hold off on any further discussion of the Garda report because we want to get through the rest of the stuff, but we will be back to it next Tuesday.
I wish to raise a couple of things. I have not gone completely through Mr. Barrett's document. However, I share the points that have been raised. There are certainly things in regard to issues that cannot be included because they have not been tested, and that is very fair. However, I found some of the suggestions really helpful. They will be helpful in finalising the report. We gave the date of last Wednesday-----
Yesterday was the closing date. We received this letter yesterday and I think another one came late yesterday evening. It might have been circulated last night or this morning. From that point of view, it came in. However, what we have to adjudicate next week is the replies we did not get, that is, that which is outstanding. If something happens or we get useful information, we are pragmatists. We are not giving an extension but we will not ignore it next Tuesday. Definitely not.
So it is not a firm deadline. The other thing is that a letter would have gone to the Central Bank about the credit union. I am presuming it did go. I had understood that it was being sent more than a week ago. It strikes me as strange that we would not have received even an acknowledgement at this stage.
We will ask the clerk. As we speak, he is working on the education report. We will speak to him later on and verify all that. We will come back to it. We will get it checked out. I do not know the answer now. I call Deputy Cullinane. We will try to move on.
I will make one brief point. I am assuming that we have no power of sanction over an Accounting Officer. If he or she is not co-operating with us or giving us information, is it simply that we note it in a report?
It is interesting that the language Mr. Niall Kelly, head of internal audit, used when he was in before was of a pattern of withholding information and non-co-operation with him. I am afraid that we are experiencing the same problem here. It has to be noted that-----
The secretariat had a checklist here the other day. I am sure that it will be updated today having received this correspondence yesterday. We will have all that. We will move on from correspondence received. The next item is on reports-----
Before the day is out, we will write to Tony O'Brien asking him for a copy of it forthwith. I thank Deputy Connolly for reminding us of it.
On reports, statements and accounts received, there is just one set of financial statements that have been laid in the Houses of the Oireachtas in the last week. Those are the financial statements of the Houses of the Oireachtas itself. The sum of €114 million is the throughput in the account in 2016 and there is a clear audit opinion. There are other mechanisms in the House-----
There was a clear audit report on it and it was the only one received. We will note that.
The next item is the work programme. To be clear, today I am proposing, once we finish this session, to bring in the officials from the Department of Finance to deal with the Finance Vote. In the afternoon, we will have those from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in regard to its Votes. That session will also include the special report on financial reporting in the public service which the Comptroller and Auditor General produced a little while ago. We will discuss that with the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the afternoon.
Before we get to that session, I want to have a private meeting to utterly finalise the education report which we hope - it is not definite - to launch next Tuesday. We are at a very advanced stage. If we complete the session with the Department of Finance before the voting block, we will start into that private session. If not, I really want to finish with the Department of Finance before the voting block and then we will commence immediately after the voting to sign off on the education report during a short private session. We will then move onto the session with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. That is the working plan. If we leave signing off the education report until after the session with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, it will be later on in the day and some members may not be able to be here at that stage, so we will get that cleared.
As I said, we are meeting in private session next week in regard to the Templemore report. The other thing I want to highlight relates to next week's meeting. The Garda Commissioner will be in to deal with the Garda Vote. There will also be officials from the Courts Service to deal with its Vote. There will be a joint session with An Garda Síochána and the Courts Service to discuss the collection of fines and the penalty points issue.
We asked that the report on the number of breath tests was to be dealt with as well but we were informed last night that the report is not expected to be finished by next Thursday. It was one of the items that was on our agenda. We are informed that the report is not expected until the end of the month. Therefore, we will not be able to deal with the issue in any great detail. We had scheduled this to be our last meeting of the year to give time to have this report done. We were informed last night that it will not be finished in An Garda Síochána until the end of the month. By the way, I wish to say that Deputy Commissioner Twomey will not be available on that day. However, the Commissioner is here as the principal witness with her two assistant commissioners. Therefore, it is only out of courtesy that I am saying that he personally cannot be here on that day, but the report will not be available to us on that day. I think that is a matter-----
I think it should be noted that we are a long time into this issue. The Committee on Justice and Equality has dealt with the issue already. At that point, it was expected that there would be answers to questions. Here we are months later. We had scheduled the meeting but the report is still not complete, which means that the public still does not have answers to those questions as to exactly what happened. I imagine it will now be the autumn before we can come back to it. Is that so?
I am alerting people to the information that we received last night, which is unsatisfactory. One would have thought the period was long enough to ensure we would get a reasonable picture of the overall situation. We will write to the Commissioner, asking her to give us as much interim information, even if it is not the final report. The Garda Síochána have to have an indication substantially on where they are at, without it being the final report, but we want as much of a progress report as is possible.
I had specifically asked the Commissioner about the report and she had said then it would be at the end of the month. In terms of next week, that is really limiting. Did the Commissioner actually say to the Chairman that it will be August?
The Garda Síochána is slow at getting information. We have other public bodies who are smarter and more prompt in providing information. We had information last night and more information this morning and it still has not answered everything. It has been a feature of our dealings with the Garda Síochána; it has not been as efficient in dealing with the Committee of Public Accounts as have some other organisations.
I presume that when the Commissioner comes before the committee, a substantial amount of the report will be done. In fact the CSO has suspended some of its statistics in respect of road traffic offences.
I acknowledge that but this is pretty serious stuff. I am conscious that the August bank holiday weekend is a great weekend to bury things. People do not pay a great deal of attention or the level of attention they should to things. One sees that all the time with bad announcements.
Will we be able to question the Commissioner, when she comes before the committee, on what is already available or will she be able to respond with the phrase that she has to wait until the report is complete? What range will we have to be able to explore this?
During the course of the day we will try to establish a bit more information on it.
At this stage, we have completed our discussion on the work programme and any other business. We will now move on to the Department of Finance Appropriation Accounts and the chapters in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General under that Vote.
We will suspend the sitting while the witnesses take their seats.